Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Places I've Run: Le Stade

I run pretty much every day (excluding the day off every week/2 weeks). Thus, almost everywhere I travel, I run. That’s pretty awesome when you think about it – all you need is shoes (and a sports bra), and no matter where you are in the world you can go for a run. It’s just one more aspect of running that makes it unlike anything else. For me it’s definitely a stabilizer – whether I’m running through the streets of Ouagadougo or on Northern California trails, I’m just a runner, going for a run.

With this in mind, I have decided to add a new “series” to my blog: The Places I’ve Run.

I’ll just jump right in and start by telling you about running in Niger.

(Sidenote: A lot of my best stories come from African running experiences because:

1. That’s the only place really outside the US that I have traveled.

2. Running in Africa was quite the adventure.

3. Compared to Africa, running in CA, MA, and DC is a teeny-tiny bit vanilla.)

Niger has different social/cultural values than America (duh), one of which is that you cannot wear shorts in public. Not in a people-throw-rocks-at-you sort of way. But shorts in public in Niger is basically the equivalent of walking around in your underwear here in the States (you could, but you just don’t). And considering the fact that it was 600 million degrees all the time, not being able to run in shorts would have been a major problem.

Ok, ok, 600 million degrees is a bit of an exaggeration. I actually have no idea how hot it was – I did not look at a thermometer the entire time I was there (and daily weather in newspapers/TV simply does not exist). Why not? you may wonder. Well, when it’s freaking hot today, and you know that it will be freaking hot tomorrow, just as it was freaking hot yesterday, there’s really no point in checking the weather. It would be depressing.

Luckily for my mal-adjusted self, there was a tiny loop-hole in the no-shorts norm. About 2 blocks away from my house, Niger had a huge National Stadium - aka Le Stade (built for the Fracophone Games in 2005), where it was socially acceptable to exercise in exercising attire. 

My Nigerienne RA accompanied myself and another student the first morning to help us negotiate the terms of our workouts with the Stadium guards. As far as I know, she explained to them (in Zharma) that we would be coming to run in the mornings, and we needed them to “watch” our pants/skirts while we did so. Done. Babu masala (No problem).

From then on, my friend and I walked to the stadium wearing pants or a skirt over our shorts. When we arrived, we left that excessive clothing with the guards, ran (or walked in her case) our laps of the giant asphalt complex, and retrieved our clothing before returning home.

About a month in, we arrived per usual (Fofo! Ngoya. Ni kani bani? Bani samay!), but before we could get going, the guards stopped us before we could take off our extra clothes (Attende! Attende!). We were confused, Are we not allowed to run anymore??? What’s going on???

My minimal French + the guard’s minimal French led to this conclusion:

Guard: C’est pas bon pour les femmes deshabiller ici. C’est pas bon. (It is not good for women to undress here. It is not good.) This statement was accompanied by tsk-ing  and head-shaking.

He then led us to a door in the stadium, which he unlocked and opened. It was a storage closet.

Guard: Ca marche? (This works?)

Us: Um, oui…

Guard: C’est bon. (It is good.)

To the approving nods of the guard and his friends (there’s never just one guard in Niger), we emerged from the broom closet in our shorts, ready to run. And that was how it went for the rest of the semester.

Lesson learned: It is just not ok to drop your pants in public in Niger. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cake of the Week: Pumpkin Bundt Cake with Chocolate Cinnamon Streusel

I can now say for 100% certain that it feels like fall!

My run on Friday was the first time I truly felt the crispness in the air, and yesterday morning's run re-confirmed it. I love fall. All summer (while literally dripping with sweat) I dream of fall running. A trail run in the fall is my heaven. Take a moment and think about it. Mmmm.

So anyway, another great thing about fall is the food. Apples. Spices. Cider. Butternut Squash. And best of all, pumpkin! Pumpkin muffins, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin oatmeal (oh yes!), and pumpkin cake. Yum yum yum to the max! If you have not yet tried pumpkin bread with peanut butter, you should probably go ahead and do that asap. And pumpkin oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins is like a satisfying bowl of heaven!

And then there’s always pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin cookies, and pumpkin curry. Aaahhh the list of extreme way-goodness just goes on and on!

I decided this weekend that my first pumpkin baking venture of the season would be pumpkin coffee cake. I spiced things up a bit by adding a cinnamon chocolate streusel filling a la sour cream coffee cake.

But, as with many of my ventures, pumpkin turned into more of an escapade than originally expected. I went to the grocery store on Saturday (because my fridge was a sad sad place – 2 apples, 1 yogurt, and some condiments do not a meal make). And gasp! the spot on the shelf with the Canned Pumpkin tag was empty!

What’s a girl to do?

Go to Trader Joes.

So I trekked myself all the way to TJs, filled my basket, and got in the RIDICULOUSLY long line before I realized that I had forgotten to get pumpkin! So I asked the girl behind me to save my spot while I ran to grab myself a can of orange squash-y goodness. And again, gasp! no pumpkin. 

TJs, you have got to be kidding me! 

I was at a loss. Until, dun dun dun, I spotted actual pumpkins. I took a deep breath, came to the realization that it was a go-big-or-go-home moment, and grabbed a whole sugar pumpkin. Pumpkin cake from scratch? Literally. Bring it on.

Sugar pumpkins are a little different from your standard Halloween carving pumpkin. First of all, this one had the thickest skin ever!!! Imagine me, in my kitchen, stabbing and sawing at a pumpkin, trying to get my knife through it. (I considered just putting the whole think in the oven and cutting it once it was roasted, but then images of exploding 350* pumpkin crossed my mind, and I thought better off it.) 

Finally I got enough leverage to cut the thing in half (Mollie: 1, Pumpkin: 0). I roasted it for 1 hour at 350* (along with my butternut squash – aka mmmm - dinner). Then I scooped out the flesh (ugh, I hate that word – what else can I call it?) and blended it to make my very own pumpkin puree. No can needed. Take that Safeway/TJs!


From there it was no problem – pumpkin bundt cake + cinnamon streusel chocolate filling.

Here’s the recipe for Super Moist Pumpkin Buttermilk Bundt Cake:

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing bundt pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-oz can; not pie filling)
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs

For glaze:
2 T butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1-3 T cream or milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour bundt pan. Combine together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, buttermilk and vanilla in another bowl.

Beat butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, then add eggs and beat 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and add flour and pumpkin mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.

Spoon batter into pan. Shake a few times to be sure to remove any bumps then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 15 minutes, then invert rack over cake and reinvert cake onto rack. Cool 10 minutes more.

To make glaze, heat butter until melted. Stir in sifted powdered sugar. Mix in cream or milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until desired consistency. Drizzle over cake while it is on a wire rack so excess falls through.

 My Adjustments:

 My family makes this delicious bundt cake from the Tassajara Bread Book. I couldn't find the recipe online, so I re-constructed the chocolate cinnamon streusel filling by feel. 


-       1.5 Tablespoons melted butter

-       2 Tablespoons flour

-       4 Tablespoons brown sugar

-       ½ Tablespoon cocoa

-       2 teaspoon cinnamon

-       ½ cup chopped walnuts


Pour half the batter in the bundt pan. Sprinkle streusel filling evenly over it, sprinkle about ½ cup mini chocolate chips over streusel, cover completely with rest of cake batter.

Also, a good FYI cheat: 

What to do if you don't have/don't want to buy buttermilk?

- Plain or vanilla yogurt works

- OR, you can make sour milk. Milk + a splash of vinegar. Let it sit for a bit (at least 1/2 hour). It will get lumpy and look gross, but it totally works as buttermilk!


Overall I’d say this recipe was a win. If I make it again, I will probably double the spices and add some ginger and cloves as well.


Happy Fall!


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Weekend Report: I Love Paula

"I would step over a person to get me a peanut butter ball"
- Paula Deen

I have blogged about a Food Network star I hate (Sandra Lee), but now I want to tell you about a Food Network star I love. That's right, Paula Deen, in all her southern deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, mayonnaise-y, butter-licious glory. Love her. She's just so jolly!

Now, I don't think I've ever made any of her food...and a lot of it, like I said, is a bit appalling to my Northern Californian/North Easterner/runner taste. But still really enjoy watching her show. (Not her talk show though, I think Food Network stars should to stick to cooking.)

Anyway, the inspiration for this I Love Paula post, is that I saw her this weekend!!! The National Book Festival was in DC on the Mall. I looked at the line-up in advance, and though there were many famous authors there, the only one I REALLY wanted to see was Paula Deen.

I made it just in time to hear her talk at 11:45. (I had to get my workout in pre-festival, and it's amazing how 9am can feel like 5am on a weekend!)

 There were a TON of people, and at first I couldn't really see her over all the heads. But then as the uninterested slowly trickled away (psh - obviously not real fans!) I was able to creep closer and closer until I was, no joke, like 30 feet away from Paula Deen and her husband, Michael Grover. Let me tell you, she was just as over the top in person as she is on TV - she even pulled out a chunk of her hair to show that she had extensions! And her hubby is the cutest old man ever!!! Santa Claus to the max. OMG, I just want to be in their family! Check out this interview with Michael on Butter In My Veins

They obviously loved being in front of a crowd, and seemed so down to earth and friendly - basically just like you think Paula and Michael should be. I really can't imagine Paula Deen having any diva hissy-fit, even though she's really famous.

So yes, go me, I saw Paula in person! I've always said that of the celebrities I would like to meet, Food Network stars top my list. Like, what would I say to Brad Pitt??? But if I came face to face with Ina Garten, I would get all ohmygodohmygodILOVEYOU!!! in true junior high fashion.

And that was basically how it was with Paula Deen. I am dying to get myself to Savannah and eat at her restaurant! Anyone? Anyone? Road trip???

Friday, September 25, 2009

So Very Grateful for Running!

"I run now," says Todd Wilson, "because there was a day when I couldn't and there will probably be a day when I can't."
- RW Article: Marathon Challenge Runner of the Week

I kind of agree - when I'm not in the mood to run, I often consider taking time off, (gasp!) - just not running for a while. But then I think back to the times when, for whatever reason, I have been unable to run. And then I throw myself out the door. Because you just never know!!!
Very rarely (because I am a PLANNER), I will be unable to run because x was running late, or y got in the way. I literally get to the end of the day and don't have time to run! This results in some major crankiness, because a planned day off is great, but an unplanned day off is SO frustrating!
(Have I mentioned that I'm addicted to running?)

Everyone has the occasional time and motivtional complaints. But there have also been times when, because of injury issues, I have been unable to run for weeks (and one time,
months) at a time. Being in that situation reminded me how much I love to run. I would see people running down the street and think, I would give anything to be running right now. I suggested semi-ridiculous things, such as encouraging my non-running friends to go for a run, just because you CAN!

My running friends would complain about a bad run/workout/race, and all I would think was,
At least you can run.
We often forget how really really awesomely amazing the ability to run is. Forgetting this makes us ungrateful. E.g. the
Ugh, I'm so not in the mood to run right now! - type of mentality.

So when I'm going through a bad running spell, and I think (just for a moment) that maybe running is just an overall bad idea, I remember how I felt when I couldn't run. Remembering that time reminds me how grateful that I am that right now, this minute, I
can run...(what a wonderful ability!) and then I get out there and enjoy it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Literary Bite: The Lost Symbol

I started reading a really good book on Sunday night. And then I forgot said book at work when I left on Monday! Thus, I needed a one-night substitute. Enter Dan Brown.
Yes that’s right, I am currently reading the super-awesome (if not poorly written) new Dan Brown book – The Lost Symbol.  And it is everything one would expect out of a Dan Brown book. I should know, I’ve read them all. 

Let me explain. 

First thing’s first, this was all pre-movies, pre-media hype. I am no slave to trends!

In high school I was very into ski racing (and anyone who knew me then would know that’s like the understatement of the century). A big part of ski racing is race cancellations due to weather. As in, you can travel to an obscure mountainous location and just not race because of storms/ice/rain/blizzards/winds.

 This happens quite often. So anyway, one time, in Mammoth, such a storm struck. We (my mom and I) were snowed in at a friend’s condo for a week. 

These friends had a well-stocked condo (meaning ice cream + books = yes!). So in the course of that week I read ALL the Dan Brown books:
I curse you Dan Brown!
This was my thought as I awoke, bleary-eyed, early on a frosty morning in Lhasa. I’d gone to the book exchange at the guesthouse the night before and rummaged through its quirky offerings. I left beingd an exceptionally boring book about Shanghai – a real drudgery, makes-you-think-of-homework kind of book – and picked up Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, because when confronted by a forty-eight-hour train trip to Chengdu it’s good to have a fat, plot-intensive book. But is was just too tasty. Just one more chaptet, I thought as the clock ticked past 2 a.m. It was only when the power failed at 3:30 in the morning and my room plugged into darkness that I finally set the book aside. But the damage had been done. I had little more than 100 pages left.
Oh Troost, I totally agree. Though a modern-day Shakespeare Brown is not, he is, without a doubt, master of the plot-driven narrative. And this new one is all in DC!

So obviously the very high-quality literature I started reading Sunday night has fallen to the wayside to make temporary room for The Lost Symbol. I only wish I were in a position to read it all at once! Unfortunately things like running, work, electricians, plumbers, sleep, and eating have obstructing my own personal quest to finish this book asap – so it is still a work in progress.

Dan Brown is like a force of nature, if you like his books, you will read this next installment. So clear your schedule and enjoy the ride!

Fun Facts and Links:
Good Morning America interview with Dan Brown
Wall Street Journal interview

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bacon + Chocolate = Yum?

Go ahead, be appalled. That is what you think it is - a dark chocolate bacon bar - and I'm eating it. 

And crazier still, I'm enjoying it! Not that I'm a bacon hater, but there is just way too much hype online in the bacon department. (OMG - listen to the Bacon Song.) Sure it's good, but I really don't think that bacon is up to God's-Gift-to-Humanity status. 

Everything is better with bacon? Hardly. Would my Ginger Plum Upside Down Cake be improved by bacon? I seriously doubt it. 
That being said, I was a little hesitant when Boss #2 presented me with a Dark Bacon Bar.

Hmm...I tentatively broke off a corner...put it in my mouth...and "let the lust of salt and sweet coat [my] tongue" (woah there chocolate bar wrapper - trying to get friendly with me, are you?).

But I'm not going to lie, it was pretty freaking delicious! The bar is dark chocolate, with tiny bits of crisp salty bacon imbedded in it. It was definitely rich and decadent tasting - I imagine it was tricky to get the chocolate-bacon ratio correct - too much bacon would be BAD. But this bar gets it right. Just a hint of bacon makes the chocolate more complex, adding a layer of flavor and richness. 

So here I am, recommending a bacon chocolate bar. Seriously, even if you're not big into bacon, try this!

And dependent on the stance you take - bacon lover or bacon hater - you will either go out and purchase some of these products, or throw up a bit...

Here's a slideshow of the Most Bizarre Bacon Products. (Including a bacon bra, bacon mints, bacon ice cream, bacon martini...woah.)

Here's another blogger's list of the 11 Worst Bacon Products. Some I agree with (like Bacon Lube - omg I can't even handle the thought of that one!), but my delicious Bacon Chocolate is also on this list...I want to know if the blogger tried it!

To end on a happy note, I bet that Depraved Chili Rubbed Bacon Peanut Brittle is really yummy!

Cake of the Week: Plum Ginger Upside Down Cake + Double Chocolate Cookies

To make up for the lack of baking last week, there has been quite a bit of culinary deliciousness going on in my world recently.

First of all, I made a Plum Ginger Upside Down Cake. I came across this recipe while Photograzing a couple weeks ago. Gingerbread? Yum. Plums? Yum. Carmelized sugar? Yumyumyum!!!

I first tried upside down cake at summer camp when I was in high school – just your standard pineapple upside down cake, probably (no, definitely) out of a box. And I LOVED it! I love how the sugar gets all carmelized on the top – no need for frosting, give me straight up sugar and cinnamon any day!

This was my first venture into upside down cake making, and I have to say that I am a huge fan. The cake looks super-elegant and complicated, but in reality is so freaking easy! I can’t believe I haven’t made upside down cake before. And they’re really versatile – pretty much any fruit would work with this recipe. I actually used black plums (which are yellow on the inside), and pluots – a plum/apricot hybrid that is pink inside. 

As you can tell by my excessive picture-taking, I think that plums are absolutely gorgeous. Such rich colors!

My Suggestions/Variations: 
- Do thick wedges of fruit – I sliced mine thin, and found myself wishing there was more fruit in my cake…
- I did not have fresh ginger, so I used a tablespoon of ground ginger. This may have been a bit too much – if you’re not huge into the ginger/molasses combo, you can go light on both.
- Also, the recipe says to cook it for over an hour – mine was done in 50 minutes!
- And one final tip, put your springform pan on a baking sheet – otherwise it may drip and cause the fire alarm to go of next time you preheat your oven…or maybe that’s just me…thank God the fire dept. doesn’t come every time my alarm goes off!

- Because this cake was so quick and easy, I would recommend making it the day you serve it – and eat it warm with vanilla ice cream. (And chocolate sauce – obviously!)

adapted from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & CafĂ© Cookbook
serves 10

For the topping:
3 T unsalted butter @ room temperature
1/2 C light brown sugar
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
4-5 medium to large ripe plums
For the cake:

4 oz unsalted butter @ room temperature
1/4 C + 2 T light brown sugar
1 T peeled, grated ginger
1 egg + 1 yolk
1/3 C molasses
1 1/2 C flour
3/4 t baking powder
3/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
3/4 C buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil a 9" springform pan and line the bottom with a 10" circle of parchment paper (or tinfoil). You want a bit of the paper to come up the side of the pan.

Cut the plums into 1/2" slices. Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and cinnamon over medium heat for about 1 minute. Pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan, completely coating the parchment paper. Place the sliced plums on top of the butter-sugar mixture in overlapping circles so that none of the bottom of the pan shows through.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Cream the butter and brown sugar on medium speed for about 5 minutes until it is smooth and pale. Add the grated ginger and beat 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the eggs one at a time, beating on low speed and making sure that each egg is fully incorporated. Slowly pour in the molasses and mix thoroughly. The mixture will look like it’s breaking but it will come together when the dry ingredients are added.

Alternately add a third of the flour mixture and half the buttermilk to the batter, starting and ending with the flour. Finish the mixing by folding with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just absorbed. Do not overmix. Pour the batter into the plum-lined pan and level the surface.

Bake for about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Run a thin knife around the edges of the cake and release the sides of the springform pan. Cover the cake with a serving platter and carefully invert. Lift the bottom of the pan off the cake and gently peel away the parchment paper.

Here is a non-gingerbread variation:

If you’re wondering what else I made this weekend, I’ll give you a hint: Double Chocolate Cherry Cookies. (Ok, that wasn’t exactly a hint, but I have no patience for guessing games.)

 I made these for a church potluck this Sunday. That’s right, take a moment to imagine me in an apron carrying a plate of cookies – preferable with my hair in pin curls or some such ridiculousness – now say, “awww, how cute!”

Ok, moving on. These cookies were pretty amazing, and really chocolatey!

The recipe calls for ¾ cups dutch process cocoa – I only had ½ cup left, and that was plenty! Also, I substituted craisins for cherries, and added walnuts. Pretty freaking awesome! Make sure you take them out when they still look gooey, because you want them soft and chewy and brownie-ish. 

(I'm not going to lie - I'm eating one right now. With my coffee. It's breakfast.) 

Double Dark Chocolate Cherry Cookies
Slightly adapted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book
1 cup all purpose flour (142 g)
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
1/4 cup dried cherries, chopped

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg, mixing well. Stir in the vanilla.
3. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in three batches, mixing just until incorporated after each addition. Stir in the chocolate chips/chunks and cherries. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
4. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and divide it in half. Roll out into 2 uniform logs, about 12 inches long. Wrap the logs in parchment paper or saran wrap. Refrigerate until firm enough to slice - a few hours. (You can freeze the logs tightly wrapped for up to 1 month.)
5. Position a rack in the top and bottom thirds of your oven. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or baking mats.
6. Cut the logs into 1 inch slices and place 1 1/2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the dough looks just baked. These cookies should be tender, so do not overbake.

The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. For longer storage, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 weeks. Do not uncover before defrosting.